Script First? Or Art?
For those working already in the comics industry, you're undoubtably familiar with the traditional flow of process: Editors come up with an idea, writer takes the idea and writes the script, artist pencils, inker inks, colorist colors, and then everything's lettered and sent off to press. Not to mention the million-and-one edits that happen every step of the way. It's a very simple process that's been worked a thousand times over.
But what about those who are their own writer, their own idea-maker, their own artist, director, and producer? The path isn't always quite so clear cut! There's nobody saying, "Draw this script!" "Ink this line!" There are a million and one ways to approach an idea, so why not take the path of least resistance?
When I first got started out in comics, a script was a vague idea. I knew what was in my head, I knew what I wanted it to say, I knew how it was supposed to look.
Well, at least I thought I did.
A seventeen-page short story and a hundred-sixty-page book later, I . . . somewhat quickly learned the appalling side effects of jumping into art unprepared. A well laid-out story takes planning and plotting and a lot of forethought of exactly where it's going, otherwise you're left with a lot of false leads and loose ends.
One of the most common questions I get when speaking to young artists--especially those influenced by manga and epic-length stories--is whether I write a script first. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said, "No." Ask me today, and you'll get a resounding, "Yes!!!"
Scripts don't have to be set in stone, but they are the building-blocks to a smooth, well thought out, and planned graphic novel. Perhaps, with a shorter story, you can get away with leaving the planning to the side, but with graphic novels, you're SOL unless you have a map and a few clear directions. It's easy to get lost in the moment of a scene and lose sight of the big picture, creating moments that speed up and slow down according not to the timing of the scene, but to necessity of the art instead.
Think of this: the more difficult the art is to draw, the more time you spend on it, the longer it feels like you've been working on the scene, and relative time according to the story becomes distorted.
However to a reader who's reading at the same steady pace--whether it be an easy close-up shot or a difficult crowd scene--time is relative to how long it takes their eye to travel across the page, not how difficult the art is. For many artists, this creates a "staccato/legato" effect where scenes feel either too short or too long.
Musical terms aside, think of your longer stories as a giant tapestry, where threads of a story interweave in and out of one another, sometimes one color disappearing behind another to reappear once again at the end. The design must be planned beforehand, and if you want there to be red at the end, then you must start the thread somewhere at the beginning. Story elements that play a major role at the end of the book must first be introduced (even if in a mere drop of a word or hint of a color) at the beginning in order to work.
I have a couple of friends working on story pitches right now who know what happens in the first book and they know all about the characters, but . . . "I don't know where it's going! Except that they save the world. Somehow." Don't start drawing until you know. Maybe not every last detail, but plan out the path and let the characters roam will they will. They'll decide for themselves where exactly to go and what to say.
So if you've never written a full script before, where to start?
Something I've taken up lately is an idea yanked from the movie and television industry. I sit down and write down on little note cards where the plot is going. I write down key moments and dialog. Nothing fancy. Then I pin 'em up to a wall (usually in my kitchen) and read straight through them, looking for plot holes and noting pacing. I sit down on the counter, pen in one hand, note cards in the other, jotting down changes as I spring back up to switch out cards, take one down, pin up another . . . or three. Slowly, the story starts to fill out, take shape and form. The characters haven't quite yet come to life yet, but the path of their life has been determined and they're now let loose to wander within their set confines.
After that, I sit down and write. And write, and write, and write. Being both artist and writer, I take no hesitancy in describing the scene and the details. Other writers prefer to leave out the details, resorting instead to dialog alone and key camera points. Everybody has their own approach, but for a very visual person, I describe where the characters look, how they move, their expressions, their body language, and their environment and how they interact with it.
Being halfway through my third graphic novel and halfway through my first book, I can say for me, personally, scripting and plotting have been quite literally, a godsend. It will always be a struggle to create, but in reading over what I've produced, the improvement is visible even to me, the artist's harshest critic. Perhaps practice has aided in that improvement as well, but figuring out a system that works for me, personally, has helped to improve dialog, pacing, and voice.
Everybody has to figure out what system works best for them. Everybody has to go through their own period of trial and error to discover what exactly that system is. Everybody has to find their own way, no one can take you there. But perhaps with a few pointers and guidelines from others, the going could be a little less tough.
So put down those easels and try writing for a change. Go out to a park or a cafe and sit and descriptively write about what the people around you are doing instead of just drawing them. How is he wearing his red leather cap? Does she walk with a sway in her hip? Jot down dialog. Observe and reflect. If you want to be a creator drawing your own stories rather than somebody else's, then you're going to have to learn to write eventually, anyway.
Not that drawing somebody else's story can't be fun, as well. But let's save that discussion for another day. ;)
And, as always, others are welcome to disagree. :) I'm speaking only from my side of the wall. Oh yeah, and there's some of that Steady Beat volume 3 art, I promised. Yummy pencils. I've a thing for drawing music in this chapter. :D They're also some of the few pages that don't give everything away! O_O
*5 lb. Hero is my band. If I had a band. Which I'll never have a band because comics eats your soul and I'll be drawing and writing 'till I the day I die. That, and I can't sing worth a copper penny. But at least I'm honest.